Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 29, 2022

Theatre of Darkness, by Thomas Shapcott

Theatre of Darkness, subtitled Lillian Nordica as Opera, is a very dark book indeed.

As a winner of the Patrick Award in 2000, Thomas Shapcott (born 1935) deserved to be listed in my ‘honour roll’ of authors supported by White’s generosity with his Nobel Prize money.  But I didn’t have a review of any of Shapcott’s oeuvre.  It was time to read the sixth of his seven novels, which I happen to have on the TBR…

Lillian Nordica as Brunnhilde (1898) (WIkipedia)

The novel is set just before the start of WW1 on Thursday Island a.k.a. Waiben in the Torres Strait, which was a regular port of call for mail and passenger services during the late 19th and early 20th century. Theatre of Darkness, however, is not an historical novel in the ordinary sense of the term.  As the reader learns in the Acknowledgments, the catalyst for the novel was an historical event, when the American diva Lillian Nordica (La Nordica) died “of exposure after a shipwreck in Torres Strait, on the eve of the First World War.”

RMS Quetta (Wikipedia)

Reading on, we find a fictional character who emerges from another actual historical event, the shipwreck in 1890 of the merchant ship RMS Quetta with the loss of 132 mostly European passengers of the 292 lives on board.

#RespectfulNod to Shapcott researching this novel in the years before Wikipedia, not launched until 2001! (And even then, it was years before it had much in the way of Australian content.)

In Theatre of Darkness, Shapcott has made these events his own. He uses this colonial island setting to contrast the European sense of displacement with the Islanders’ sense of being at ease on their land, and to explore obsession and fame. To reinforce the importance of music and the Wagnerian theme of the novel, he has structured it like an opera in three acts, with recurring motifs and a suitably dramatic ending.

What happens to fame when a diva of international renown arrives by circumstance in a place where opera is unknown to all but a privileged few, and even they have no access to it or any other kind of orchestral music? From the outset, Lechemere Braun finds it necessary to educate the readers of his little newspaper about the importance of this unexpected celebrity.  Lechmere is a man of stature in this small community because his is the only newspaper for four hundred miles. (He also runs the post office and the telegraph station.) He anticipates a little fame of his own with impressive sales of the paper and possible syndication.  He dispatches his ‘daughter’ Quetta to find out more, handing her a hessian bag as protection against the persisting remnants of the cyclone that drive the ship onto the rocks.

But Quetta loves the rain.  She sticks her long damp dress up into her bloomers and plunges out.  The heat and humidity already have stuck her straggly hair onto her face.  The stinging needles almost refresh her and her agile feet leap between clumps of paspalum and slippery bare clay patches as she races downhill.  She gives an exaggerated wave to the grim-faced Dr Fomorian, soaking and like a giant red chicken, she thinks, who is climbing clumsily upwards, his white topee no help against the squally rain and his once white jacket already a mess.  She should have brought down the hessian bag for him, she thinks.  (p.7)

Quetta in manner and acclimatisation to the tropical weather, is at home on this island.  By contrast, in dress, social standing and her desire to decamp for the wider world (Brisbane!), she is part of the elite of this small colonial outpost.  Her identity, however, is unknown.  She calls Lechmere Braun ‘Dad’ but he is not her father.  She was one of two survivors of the RMS Quetta disaster, and since no one knew her identity, she was named after the ship.  Lillian, recuperating, takes on her cultural education.  Significantly, though her voice has not recovered from pneumonia, and was in decline anyway at this stage of her career, she sings for Quetta when they are alone together.  Like Lillian’s culturally naïve Australian audiences, Quetta is impressed.  But like them, how would she know what a great diva sounds like?  They, we are told by the visiting Dr Siegfried Fomorian, have only heard Nellie Melba sing songs that are wrong for her voice.

The oh-so-aptly-named Dr Fomorian* considers himself an expert on operatic standards as well as his own specialty, phrenology. (Which is now discredited as pseudoscience but it was influential in the field of eugenics, which originated in Fomorian’s birthplace, Germany.) Fomorian is not best pleased that La Nordica’s arrival has pushed his arrival off the front page, because he needs to publicise his ‘research project’ in order to get the cooperation of the Islanders (so that he can measure their heads).  Unimpressed by Lechemere Braun’s excitement about a jump in circulation figures for The Torres Straits Pilot and New Guinea Gazette, Fomorian engages in an act of vengeance within the Letters to the Editor pages of the paper.  He needs to sabotage her reputation in order to aggrandise his own.

(*Yes, do click that link. The Fomorians are a supernatural race in Irish mythology, often portrayed as hostile and monstrous beings, representing the wild or destructive powers of nature; personifications of chaos, darkness, death, blight and drought.)

Shapcott shows the irony of these two imported celebrities—one of ‘science’ and the other of the arts—competing with each other in a place where the ‘cultural’ elite is oblivious to the culture of the island on which they temporarily reside.  The ageing La Nordica (and her acolyte the violinist Franklin Holding who depends on her recovery for her—and his—remaining tour) must come to terms with the eclipse of her fame:

‘A prima donna dies three deaths: when her beauty fades, when her voice fails, and when the breath leaves her body.’ When she wrote that she was too young to know there is a fourth death: when her will falters, or is taken away.  (p.60)

Now in the enervating tropical heat and rain, she is losing her will.  But Fomorian is anticipating fame and glory.  And will stop at nothing to achieve it.

As the novel reaches its dramatic climax in Act III, Fomorian is left alone on the beach with an Islander toddler.  Primed by sequences where this nightstalker hides among sweet, sticky mango trees on the beach to ogle Lillian in her diaphanous nightgown and the Islanders dancing and coupling in the nude, the reader holds her breath.  But whatever the imagination conjures up about what might happen… #NoSpoilers! nothing is as vile as his plans.

It sends a shiver down my spine just thinking about it!

Image credits:

Author: Thomas Shapcott
Title: Theatre of Darkness
Publisher: Vintage (Random House Australia) 1998
ISBN: 9780091835408, pbk., 282 pages
Source: Personal library, OpShopFind


Responses

  1. I have never vowed an opera that encompassed the themes of war and foreign lands. Hmmm!

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  2. I have a copy of this book and read the first 5 or 6 pages about a year back. I put it back on the shelf, not because I had an issue with it but because I felt that it needed my complete attention. I actually have Hotel Bellevue as well. An interesting surname as I work with a fella by that. He told me his dad told hem they were related via 3rd GGP or something like that.

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    • You’re right, it is that kind of book. And it needs some thinking time afterwards as well,
      But what a relief it is to read such a book… IMO there’s not enough of this kind of intellectually stimulating writing around ATM.

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  3. Thank you for such a delicious dive into a book that looks worth a plunge, a soak and a swim. I love post colonial constructs that depict cultural conflict – colonial notions of superiority colliding with existing cultures that have their own world view. This is a book I will read and contemplate. You write honestly and perceptively and I am so grateful for your work in pointing me towards works that are worth reading.

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